This week in Washington, D.C. the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is hosting its World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. Believers from over 130 countries gathered for the summit, with many of them sharing their personal stories of persecution. Franklin Graham opened the summit yesterday with an address that put the spotlight on what he called “the equivalent of a Christian genocide,” while United States Vice President Mike Pence addressed the summit this morning. Graham estimated that over one hundred thousand Christians worldwide are either killed or imprisoned for their faith every year, and so he called this summit to “affirm our solidarity with all those suffering persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ.”
When believers learn of their persecuted brothers and sisters around the globe, usually the first question is: what can I do? Graham’s first answer is to pray—“for their protection, and that they’ll remain faithful to the Gospel.” The BGEA website also encourages American Christians to get informed, to contact elected officials, and to raise awareness on social media of persecuted Christians.
Reading about this summit took me back to a graduate school classroom where I sat in the class of a man who had sat at the feet of hundreds of our persecuted brethren. Nik Ripken has interviewed hundreds of faithful Christians in over seventy countries who have lived firsthand the horrors of being beaten, battered, and imprisoned for their faith in Jesus. That weeklong intensive course years ago remains one of the most special weeks of my life, for it was then I first encountered these true stories of courageous men and women who loved not their own lives even unto prison, torture, or death. They were thrown into underground holes and cold Soviet prisons. They were arrested from their pulpits and dragged from their homes. They were killed; an entire generation of Somali believers was wiped out in the 1990s. These are men and women of whom the world was not worthy, brothers and sisters who understood that their affliction does not compare with the glory that will be revealed to them.
Ripken chronicled his walk with persecuted Christians—including his own suffering in the death of his son in Kenya—in his book The Insanity of God. There he made the point that after interviewing hundreds of suffering believers he can say “without a shadow of a doubt that the primary cause of ‘religious persecution’ in the world today is people surrendering their hearts and lives to Jesus” (loc. 4584). This is a truth that we need to remember when gathering for world summits, contacting congressmen, or trying to put pressure on the United Nations by making our voice heard. If the root of persecution is people coming to faith in Jesus, do we really want that to stop?
We would do well to listen to believers in persecution who are not only the objects of our compassion and subjects of our prayers, but are also our teachers in the faith. We have much to learn from their courage, fearlessness, and loyalty to Jesus. For example, Ripken rarely heard mature believers ask for prayer that their persecution would stop. Instead, they requested prayer that “they would be faithful and obedient through their persecution and suffering” (loc. 4595). Of course, we do not want anyone to suffer. We are not advocates for injustice, and we would be delighted if God would grant relief to suffering saints and thwart His enemies who harm His children. So it is good to pray accordingly.
But stopping the bleeding is not our first concern. Rather, we aim to bleed like Jesus, for a servant is not greater than his master. Jesus was faithful, true, and obedient in his suffering, and so we pray that believers worldwide will imitate Him in their own persecution. We must realize that faith amid the fury of persecution is a potent weapon against unbelief, one that our Father uses to demonstrate to the world the unsurprising riches of Christ, who is more valuable than anything life can give or death can destroy. It is when the Gospel takes root in a culture that the persecution subsides, therefore the best way to stop persecution long term is to declare the supremacy of Jesus Christ.
It is at this point, according to Ripken, that we get to the core goal of persecuting of Christians: denying people access to Jesus. Satan uses all sorts of means to choke out the Gospel. In some places he uses prison, torture, social shunning, unemployment, or a knife to the throat. In other places, comfort, convenience, ample amounts of television, and a few well-timed scolding tweets will do the trick. The goal remains the same: to silence Christians from speaking the Gospel. But Jesus Christ is Lord, and any attempt to deny people access to Him is overstepping authority. Persecuted believers have had enough backbone to say, “No.” They have taught us that freedom to proclaim Christ is not dependent on a governmental system or code of laws. Christians are always free to tell the truth no matter what the authorities say—whether those authorities carry a badge or a blog, whether they are government officials or the unofficial Lords of Acceptable Speech. The consequences of such courage varies from place to place, but those who have paid the highest prices teach us that Jesus is worth it.
Ripken tells the story of Stoyan, the son of a jailed Ukrainian pastor, who followed in his father’s footsteps, being thrown into prison for running an underground Christian publishing network back in the Soviet era. At the end of their interview he stuck his fingers in Ripken’s chest and raised his voice: “Don’t ever give up in freedom what we would never have given up in persecution! That is our witness to the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ!” (loc. 3012). So it is right and good to gather to raise awareness and show solidarity for persecuted Christians around the world. But it is far better to identify with them, to share in their sufferings as they share in the sufferings of Christ. They are persecuted because they will not deny Jesus, nor remain silent about Him. On this point I can still hear Ripken’s voice from that classroom years ago: we will either identify with persecuted Christians by our witness or we will identify with their persecutors by our silence.